"It feels like warning sirens made into a film that isn't so much as alarmist but pleasantly, if unfortunately, realistic and finally getting recognized."
by Steve Pulaski
Beatriz (Salma Hayek) lives in a small loft and spends her days finding work out of her office as a massage therapist and career healer. She is given invaluable company by her many pets, including dogs and goats, and finds great solace and joy in bringing healing to her often stressed, tense clients. While massaging a middle-aged, wealthy socialite named Kathy (Connie Britton), she talks to her longtime client about her college-age daughter, whom she helped care for when she had Hodgkin's disease. During these moments, Kathy gives Beatriz the cordial, if surface-level, compassion that keeps her going.
Following the massage, Beatriz's beater car won't start, and after learning that her friend won't be able to get out of work to help her for a while, Kathy invites Beatriz to stay for dinner. Inside Kathy's lavish home, her and her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) instruct gourmet chefs to prepare a dinner of steak and halibut for their friends, who are celebrating the passage of important business legislature by way of California senators. The dinner guests are young entrepreneur Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloë Sevigny), who helped orchestrate the plan of action, as well as business tycoon Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his wife Jeana (Amy Landecker).
Right off the bat, Beatriz is immediately out of place in this world, not only being a member of the working class who sits back and anxiously observes conversation in her mom-jeans while clutching her glass of white wine, but also being the only minority. She watches wealthy, cocksure white people mix and mingle, gossiping about a reality TV star with genital herpes and white collar business moves that completely allude and exclude her.
Kathy's hospitality to Beatriz extends past a dinner invitation to spending the night when Beatriz realizes her friend won't be able to make it over, leaving her at the mercy of a group of people who see through her and barely let her finish a sentence when it's dinnertime. What unfolds is a contentious relationship between the titular character and Doug, who brags about his hotel company Rife Corporation thriving against a flurry of protests as his buildings are erected all over the world. At one point, he laughs off his presumption of how easy it will be to remove some native bird's nest off of one of his Latin American property sites, especially compared to the time construction of one of his buildings was delayed because someone bombed one of the trucks.
The setup of Beatriz at Dinner is a terrific one, as it deals with a group of wealthy, detached individuals who have either completely forgotten or have never known life on the opposite side of the tracks being faced with a metaphorical elephant in the room in the form of a quiet Mexican woman. The kind of people that still believe hard work will automatically equate to great financial success and a social safety net. Beatriz is symbolic of the unseen minority that is usually so far removed from social situations like this that she might as well be on another planet. Consider the central dinner, where the guests seem to talk around her, as if people like her aren't the victims of things like Doug's hotel corporations being built in low-income areas that result in the demolition of people's homes.
Not all of these guests are evil, but not many are very sympathetic. Kathy, out of everybody, seems to be the most gracious, quietly thankful for her social-status and willing to go out of her way to be cordial to a woman who has done everything for her and her family without so much as asking for a thank you or explicit compensation. After an outburst, Beatriz begs Kathy's forgiveness and says, "please let me give you free massages for the rest of your life to make up for it." This is the kind of person Beatriz is - endlessly giving and charitable within her means. At one point, we could maybe have seen Alex be the same way, but he is now more-so on Doug's spectrum than anything resembling Beatriz's.
Salma Hayek gives a lovely performance here, with her facial expressions complete with glazed, dough-eyes that look capable of producing tears at any moment. It may be a bit emotionally obvious, and occasionally, it can be seen as overwrought, but Arteta does everything in his directorial power to keep Beatriz at Dinner from being a stageplay of sorts. In addition, Mike White's writing conveys the aforementioned vapidness of the characters by favoring simple, lyrically written dialog that is comprised of small-talk, impulsive reactions, and microaggressions. It feels like an average dinner in your gated community, and resonates with anyone who has ever been amongst people where, from the second they entered the party, knew they didn't belong.
Even as Hayek commands the screen with her impressions, Lithgow threatens to usurp with the bluntness of a boastful old man. His character is slimy and unfeeling, but unbelievably watchable as the veteran character actor slithers into a role you can see in his eyes he enjoys playing. The remainder of the cast functions adequately, although Duplass' moments of comic relief unfortunately disrupt the tone as I presume they would a formal gathering.
What pumps the brakes on Beatriz at Dinner being better than "pretty good" is its ending, which loans itself to the more serene, dreamlike side of the narrative I've neglected to mention until right now. Throughout the film, long, impressionistic pauses punctuate a very conversational, loquacious bunch of characters. Hayek's Beatriz slips into her own mind on occasion, and the ending loans itself to that and, consequentially, feels a bit abrupt and indecisive. It seems ever since seeing Baby Driver two weeks ago, I've been running into that problem a lot lately. White's decision to end the film as is feels like the narrative operates on autopilot in an attempt to beautifully bookend through symbolism but instead running the risk of letting a lack of fulfillment wash over the audiences.
But Beatriz at Dinner does a lot in its mere eighty minutes, operating like a thematically broader, modernized vehicle for the fairly dormant, bygone mumblecore style of filmmaking. Hayek and Lithgow anchor an already fluid premise and give it the uncomfortable, uneasy vibes that will continue to characterize the political future of this country when conversations like the ones in this film arise. It feels like warning sirens made into a film that isn't so much as alarmist but pleasantly, if unfortunately, realistic and finally getting recognized.
Steve's Grade: B